How imaginary worlds can help save the real world, by Jason Louv

A month ago, I re-discovered one of the great loves of my life: Dungeons and Dragons.

Like many nerds, I spent my teenage years in my imagination — reading and writing. I didn't play sports. I didn't have a girlfriend. I was an awkward goth in a giant, anonymous high school. But role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and card games like Magic, allowed me to share my introversion with others, and thereby maintain a core group of friends.

This was in the mid-1990s, when there was still a literal "Internet Yellow Pages" book you could buy that listed all of the then-known Web sites. Video and computer games were still crude, rather than the alternate lives that they have become. But we had role-playing games, and we even had this thing called "book stores" (multiple chains, even) that stocked them.

And while Magic: The Gathering and White Wolf's World of Darkness (the Remembrance of Things Past of RPGs) were making massive bids for our attention, Advanced Dungeons Dragons (2nd Edition!) was still king.

There's just something about high Arthurian or Tolkienesque fantasy that cuts so deeply into the Western unconscious, finding a far more central vein than anything that Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs or Jack Kirby were able to mine. Nothing beats the experience of the Grail Quest, of becoming a heroic adventurer in a medieval world full of fantastic creatures, on a mission to slay the dragon and liberate the princess — or at least get some decent gold, treasure and experience points.

Until I left for college, fantasy paperbacks and comics were my world when I was alone, and role-playing games were my world when I was with friends. And how much more real, in a way, the inner palaces of my adolescent imagination felt to me than the gritty "reality" of so-called adult life, of endless war, losing friends to drugs, economic chaos, tumultuous relationships, chasing dollars.

Am I so wrong to want to go back to the Garden?

The Interior Castle

While our culture dismisses any use of the imagination as wasted time — something that distracts us from the "real" world of quantification and monetization — mystics and artists throughout history have told us that the imagination is the vehicle which brings us into contact with reality, not away from it.

William Blake is an exemplar of this approach — "The world of imagination is the world of eternity," he wrote. "It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal."

In 1577, the Spanish Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila wrote a prayer manual called The Interior Castle, which describes her path to union with God as a kind of epic single-player Dungeons and Dragons game. In it, she describes a vision she received of the soul as a castle-shaped crystal globe, containing seven mansions. These mansions — representing seven stages of deepening faith — were to be traversed through internal prayer. Throughout the book, she warns that this imaginary internal world will be consistently assaulted by reptilian specters, "toads, vipers and other venomous creatures," representing the impurities of the soul to be vanquished by the spiritual pilgrim.

Sixty-five years earlier, St. Ignatius of Loyola designed his Spiritual Exercises as the training manual of the Jesuits, in which adherents were to deeply imagine themselves partaking in incidents from the life of Christ, creating inward virtual realities built up over years as a way of coming closer to God. Similar techniques exist in many world religions — in the stark inner visualizations of Tantric Buddhism, for instance. Such mystics speak not just of the vital importance of daydreaming and fantasy, but of the disciplined imagination as literally the door to divinity.

As we progress into the 21st century, this is a door that we are slowly losing the key to. The French Situationist author Annie Le Brun, in her 2008 book The Reality Overload: The Modern World's Assault on the Imaginal Realm, suggests that information technology is causing blight and desertification in the world of the imagination just as surely as pollution and global warming are causing blight and desertification in the physical world. We are gaining the ability to communicate and hoard information, but losing the ability to imagine.

I literally cannot get my head around what it must be like to be a child or teenager now, raised in a completely digitized world — where fantasy and long reverie have given way to the instant gratification of electronic media. There can be no innocence or imagination or wonderment in the world of Reddit, Pornhub and 4Chan — just blank, numb, drooling fixation on a screen flickering with horrors in a dark and lonely room, the hell of isolation within one's own id. I recently saw a blog post about a toilet training apparatus with an attachment for an iPad. No, no, no.

Just as electronic media is stripping us of our right to privacy, so is it stripping us of our right to an inner world. Everything is to be put on public display, even our most intimate moments and thoughts.

We need to go back. We need to re-discover the door to the inner worlds — a door that I believe encouraging young people to read printed books, and to play analog role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, can re-open.

In Search of Dragons

Which brings us to a few months ago, half a lifetime away from my teenage role-playing years, when Wizards of the Coast released the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

And god, yes, it is the ultimate version of D&D, a game that now has nearly half a century of playtesting and lore behind it. I'm holding both the new Player's Handbook and Monster Manual now — they're the perfect distillation of everything that's come before, with a streamlined rule set that actually makes sense, plug-and-play character creation with character skill trees that update D&D for the post-World of Warcraft age, beautiful printing and a sense of levity, fun and humor to match the high production values. They are the ultimate, canonical version of the game.

The fact that the 5th Edition Player's Handbook hit #1 on Amazon as soon as it was released suggests a lot more than a well-designed product, however. It suggests a significant social trend. Yes, there's the standard nostalgia of Gen X and Millenials for their childhood toys, but I think there's something even deeper going on there: A need for reconnection, not just with the un-digitized imagination but with other people.

The entire "Gamergate" fiasco underlined, for me at least, how fundamentally psychopathic people can become when they stay locked in their digital cages — cages they may well have been raised in — gaining little to no understanding of real-world interaction. That much time in virtual worlds is very, very bad for us. When we lose our connection with ourselves, and with others, we lose our empathy — and, finally, our souls.

This erosion of imagination and empathy, and accompanying emotional psychosis, lives not just in the deepest depths of the Chans but in everybody who exists in a band of perception narrowed to include only their cell phone. It lives in me, a writer who spends 12-14 hours a day on a laptop.

So it was around the time, and the re-launch of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, that I decided to at least take the positive step of completely curtailing all use of digital games and of switching back to actual role playing games involving actual people. Shortly thereafter, something of a minor miracle occurred: I reconnected with some of my friends from the Good Old Days and we started playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, as if no time had passed at all. I haven't been this infectiously and unabashedly excited about something since… well I dunno, the last time I played Dungeons and Dragons. It's D&D. It's awesome. It's a world you can understand.

I'm still staring at a computer — we're using the excellent online role-playing tool — but I'm also hanging out with real people on video chat, a welcome break in the monastic writer's life. I get to catch up with my friends' lives, and we get to bring the vastly superior attention spans and role-playing abilities of adults to the game. Over the last few weeks, we played through the starter set — Lost Mines of Phandelver, which is a vintage "go kill the local kobolds" intro adventure — and we're about to crack into the rest of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign that Wizards of the Coast is releasing in multiple books. (No, I won't annoy you by telling you about my character. I won't tell you about how he's a righteous Gold Dragonborn Paladin of Bahamut with a dark secret in his past and a +1 longsw… OK, I'm stopping, I'm stopping!)

Reading the /r/DnDnext subreddit, I've come across countless stories of gaming groups getting started to introduce new players to the hobby — high school teachers getting games going with their students, families playing the game with their kids. I think that's great. It demonstrates game designer Mark Rein•Hagen's old point that role-playing games are a survival of the storytelling tradition. And I hope that the new generation of these games instills a love of the imagination in the young, leading them on to read imaginative literature. (I'm particularly impressed with the "inspirational reading" list in the back of the new Player's Handbook, directing enthusiastic players to some of the literary classics of the genre. It was through book lists like this, in the back of role-playing games or the letters columns of comic books, that I got my real education.)

In our present moment, I can think of few acts more revolutionary than encouraging active imagination in young people — aiding them to build inner worlds in which they can be free, in which they can find themselves, and which they may one day use to generate new ideas that might save us all. Dungeons and Dragons and games like it remain some of our best gymnasiums for building that active imagination. And the new role-playing Renaissance that may be sparked by the success of 5th edition can come no sooner.